Review: Doctor Who - The Claws of Axos (Special Edition) / Cert: PG / Director: Michael Ferguson / Writer: Bob Baker and Dave Martin / Starring: Jon Pertwee, Katy Manning, Nicholas Courtney, Roger Delgado, Richard Franklin, John Levene / Release Date: Out Now
‘Classic’ Doctor Who often gets it in the neck for its so-called low production values; dodgy special effects and wobbly sets are the sticks most often used to beat the show with by sniffy smart-mouthed 21st century critics of the old episodes. But they did have a point from time to time and it’s not impossible that 1971’s ‘The Claws of Axos’ is where much of the criticism started. Everything wobbles in ‘The Claws of Axos’; walls wobble, floors wobble, doors wobble… even Jon Pertwee’s bouffant has a bit of a quiver every now and again. But this lively colourful serial is also a fine example of what Doctor Who has always done - it fearlessly and cheerfully tells a story which is really way out of the reach of its budget and it has a damned good time just getting on with it and making the best of it.
In 1970 Doctor Who sailed confidently through its earliest cancellation crisis. The show had been struggling at the end of the 1960s and only survived the transition into colour production and with a third actor playing the Doctor because the BBC couldn’t come up with anything in a similar genre to replace it (beyond a half-hearted idea about rebooting the old Quatermass franchise). Season seven had seen Doctor Who reborn but for the eighth season producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks set about redefining the Doctor-exiled-to-Earth format they’d reluctantly inherited from their production predecessors, moving the show away from the edgier, grittier and defiantly more adult tone of the four serials which had made up Pertwee’s first year. So out went the Doctor’s brainy Cambridge scientist assistant Liz Shaw (the late Caroline John) and in came ditzy mini-skirted trainee spy/UNIT agent Jo Grant (Katy Manning), a much better fit for Pertwee’s cloaked and rather patrician Doctor. Out too went the long seven-part narratives of the previous series (at least two of which, ironically, remain amongst the most absorbing and mature stories in the show’s entire fifty-year canon) and, to move the show a bit nearer its roots as a children’s/family show, in came boo-hiss Time Lord super-villain bad guy The Master (Roger Delgado). Coupled with more garishly colourful production and storylines to match, arch and much less realistic performances along with a generally lighter tone, the show was well on its way to becoming a TV comic strip.
‘The Claws of Axos’, the third serial in the 1971 series is big, brash, unsubtle stuff, its headlong storyline lights years away from slower-paced and more thoughtful (and believable) serials such as ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’ and ‘Inferno’ from the year before. UNIT’s five-man army spring into action when a long, cylindrical UFO crashlands on a shale beach in the South of England in the shadow of a Nuclear power station which apparently provides most of the country’s power. Once aboard the ship (most of which has, conveniently for the props guys, buried itself underground leaving just a saucy-looking gaping opening up on the surface) the Doctor, the trusty Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Courtney) and an assortment of turtle-necked boffins and stiff-necked politicians find themselves in the company of the body-stockinged, golden Axons. These apparently benevolent aliens have arrived on Earth just to power up their organic spaceship and offer humanity a wonderful gift - a supply of axonite which will enable the human race to end the problems of world hunger at a stroke by increasing the size of food resources so everyone gets a decent helping. But the Axons aren’t quite as benign as they appear; they’re secretly a bunch of shrieking, bright orange tentacled monsters and they’ve come to earth to drain it of its resources. “The claws of Axos are imbedded deeply into the Earth’s carcass!” exclaims the Doctor in one spectacularly memorable display of deathless dialogue.
‘The Claws of Axos’ actually takes the template of the seventh season - scientific establishment, technical mumbo-jumbo, starchy scientists, aliens of dubious intent - and makes it a little less stodgy and a bit more palatable than the slightly long-winded stories of the previous year. These are four rattling, fast-paced episodes, low on credibility (UNIT guards this downed space vessel - which attracts remarkably little attention from anyone else - with just handful of soldiers who allow various characters to come and go as they please with nary a ‘who goes there?’) but high on (melo)drama, peppered with typically 1970s set pieces (the stunt men of HAVOC are rolling all over the place in their cumbersome Axon costumes in various action scenes). The mix is shaken up a little with the addition of tough, gruff CIA agent Bill Filer (Grist) who, in a modern version of the story would probably have a bit of a thing for Jo, and Peter Bathurst’s stereotypical civil servant Mr Chinn whose pomposity is regularly pricked by Pertwee’s barbed Doctor. The Master’s back too - unsuspecting 1971 viewers had no idea the newly-introduced character would feature in each of the year’s serials - and here he’s initially a prisoner of the Axons before escaping and hatching his own plan to escape Earth in the Doctor’s TARDIS which itself makes a long-overdue reintroduction (Letts and Dicks reminding the audience of the show’s original ‘adventure in Space and Time’ remit) and perhaps the best twist in the plot occurs where it appears that the Doctor is about to team up with the Master to finally escape his Earth exile, allowing the planet to face its own fate from the rapidly-expanding Axos threat.
Originally released on DVD in 2005, ‘The Claws of Axos’ is presented in this new two-disc ‘special edition’ mainly because of technological advances which have allowed previously poor quality colour episodes to be replaced by much shaper and more vivid restorations which are still clearly not derived from the original UK broadcast tapes but certainly of considerably better quality than we’ve seen before and probably as good as this story is ever going to look. Time has actually been surprisingly good to ‘Claws of Axos’ as a story; as always it’s very much ‘of its time’ and its production short-comings (even Dudley Simpson’s woefully-misjudged whining incidental score and the eye-raisingly childish unfortunate Axon victim Pigbin Josh with his constant cries of ‘Ooh-arr’) serve only to accentuate the constant scale of ambition and imagination of the show set against the cash available to make it look good on the screen. Unlike much modern Doctor Who though, ‘Claws of Axos’ just sets out to tell an exciting and dynamic adventure story without smugness or self-satisfaction or any sense of ‘look how clever we are’. ‘Claws of Axos’ isn’t perfect Doctor Who but it’s a far better of example of what the show can and should be than any number of dinosaurs on any number of spaceships…
Extras: Apart from the improved picture quality the new extras include ‘Axon Stations!’, an enjoyable if fairly standard ‘making of’ which features, amongst others, an especially frisky Katy Manning and ‘Living with Levene’ a brilliant and fascinating documentary, one of the finest in the DVD range to date, where comedian/superfan Toby Hadoke spends a weekend in Salisbury with the eccentric John Levene, the actor who played UNIT’s reliable Sergeant Benton in the 1960s and 1970s. Most of the other extras, including the commentary with Manning, Richard Franklin and producer Barry Letts are ported over from the original release.